Two Philadelphia city councilmembers under federal indictment in separate corruption cases are both poised to gain influence over the very areas of city government they are accused of abusing, under committee assignments by Council President Darrell L. Clarke.
Prosecutors on Wednesday accused Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson of securing a zoning change for a company that hired his wife as a consultant. As the new chairman of the Rules Committee, Johnson will oversee the panel that handles all zoning legislation.
And in a wide-ranging indictment last year of officials in the city electricians union, Councilmember Bobby Henon was accused, in part, of weaponizing the Department of Licenses and Inspections against Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for the benefit of the union. Clarke last week named him the new chairman of the Committee on Licenses and Inspections.
Clarke on Thursday defended his committee assignments for Johnson and Henon.
“The lineup in terms of committees were assigned based on an individual’s, one, willingness to serve, and, two, their ability to serve,” he said. “There is a presumption of innocence in this great country that we live in, and you have an opportunity to defend yourself. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to indict or cast a guilty verdict on an individual who serves in this body.”
Both Johnson and Henon have denied the accusations against them.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said the criminal allegations will be resolved in the courtroom, but said letting them “keep this sort of power in the legislative process can taint all the work” by their committees. “Folks go back and forth as to whether or not, when one of these indictments come down, the individual in question should resign from public office. That’s a separate matter because the voters are involved. In this case, Council decides whether these folks have the power to sit on these committees.”
On Thursday, none of Johnson’s 16 Council colleagues called on him to resign or step back from his lawmaking duties. Following Henon’s indictment, only Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez called for him to step down.
“I don’t think it puts us in the best light, but at the same time, these members deserve to have their cases play out in court and have their day in court,” newly elected Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said, echoing many of her colleagues.
Council rules prohibit Clarke from unilaterally removing a chair or vice chair once he has made committee assignments for the four-year term, as Clarke did last week. But Council can strip a colleague of a committee gavel with a simple majority vote.
“No member of Council, once appointed, may be removed from the Chair or vice-Chair of any standing Committee of Council, except upon a vote of a majority of all the members of Council,” the rules state.
Without such a vote, there is no way to prevent Johnson or Henon from leading those committees. A 1982 Law Department opinion after the Abscam scandal held that members who wish to continue their Council duties, including serving on committees, cannot be prevented from doing so until they are convicted and sentenced.
“As a Councilmember he has the right to attend the regular meetings of Council and to be permitted to participate in the normal and regular activities of a Councilmember, including the caucus and committee work, both of which are integral parts of the legislative processes of the Council,” the opinion says.
Asked on Thursday whether it was inappropriate for him to lead the committee that handles zoning bills in light of the indictment, Johnson responded: “Not at all.”
“I have done nothing wrong, and everything that’s in the indictment is alleged. It’s not fact,” said Johnson, who also chairs the Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities. “I’m innocent, and I always work in decency and transparency. So I will continue working in that same manner as the rules chairman.”
Henon, who also chairs the Committee on Public Property and Public Works, said the indictments would not affect his ability to lead committees.
“This Council has full confidence in all its committees, its makeups, and working with the administration,” Henon said. “It’s irrelevant when it comes to the policies that Council and the city work on together and vote on independently. So people are going to be able to do their work, do their job, and move the city forward.”